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"The best pure
point guard
who ever
played
the game"
--Charles
Barkley


 
6/8/2003
Stockton never sought limelight
His grace and guile on the court are what matters most, John Blanchette writes.

» John Blanchette / The Spokesman-Review

Memory fails or is permuted into myth.

The satellite dish, we were absolutely certain, went up outside Jack and Dan's Tavern in 1985 -- the year the saloonkeeper's son broke into the big time. It pulled the signal in from Salt Lake and a city full of worshippers in to fill the banquettes, and it was an instant Spokane phenomenon.

The reality is considerably less, well, grand -- not surprising in any hagiography of John Stockton.

"No, no," insisted his father, Jack. "His first three seasons in Utah, Clemy and I would get in the station wagon and drive up on the hill and point it south. We could pick up Hot Rod Hundley doing the games on the radio, with the signal fading in and out.

"John was playing about nine minutes a game and we'd sit and wait for those -- and then the signal would fade out and we'd drive someplace else and point it south again."

By the beginning of his fourth season in the National Basketball Association, Stockton had cracked the starting lineup of the Utah Jazz, where he would remain for the next 16 years. The radio broadcasts had been moved off the 50,000-watt flamethrower and out of the range of Jack and Clemy Stockton's car antenna. And so the dish bloomed on the pole outside the tavern on Hamilton.

Rarely thereafter would a telecast of a Jazz game not include some mention of Jack and Dan's and the home folks bunched into the booths there. A neighborhood joint had become an accidental city landmark, the sports world's window looking in on Spokane.

Just as John Stockton became our window looking out.

Now the shade has been drawn.

Nineteen years after the Jazz plucked him from Gonzaga University with the 16th pick in the draft -- 19 years being the third longest career in NBA history -- Stockton's retirement has been duly recorded and feted in a Saturday night ceremony in Salt Lake City, with sentiment that is not his style but not unappreciated, either.

This became another myth surrounding Stockton -- that his stoicism, tunnel vision and discomfort with celebrity somehow translated into a kind of ingratitude.

In his final game, a sad playoff blowout in Sacramento, Stockton and Karl Malone were summoned to the bench by coach Jerry Sloan with a tick more than five minutes remaining. Finder and finisher, they had been batterymates for 18 seasons, but the implication was that this was it, the last roundup together. And so every last fan in the house surged to his feet and applauded, at length and with reverence.

On the phone later with his father, Stockton allowed that it took him by surprise, and that he valued the gesture.

"So why didn't you wave or something?" Jack wondered. "It's all right to do that, you know."

"We're down 17 points," shot back John, game face back on. "I'm not going to wave at anybody."

If it hadn't been Sacramento, if Stockton had played his final game in any other NBA city, the acclaim would have been just as pronounced. So staggering are his records -- for assists, steals, longevity, loyalty -- that the Hall of Fame induction in five years is a given. Indeed, at the NBA's 50th anniversary seven years ago, he was named one of the league's 50 best players of all-time. Put a ceiling on the criteria and he is undoubtedly the best small man to ever play the game, though he would hate the distinction.

But now that he's coming back to us -- our assumption, anyway -- what exactly did those records and reputation count for here in his hometown?

A swing through a sports clothier at Northtown Mall the other day revealed racks of NBA jerseys for sale -- Iversons and Bryants and O'Neals and McGradys and Odoms. There were Gonzaga jerseys, too -- unmarked Casey Calvarys and Cory Violettes. Even an old school Wes Unseld.

But no Stocktons.

That isn't shameful, necessarily, but mostly inevitable.

"Has he done a commercial?" asked Dan Fitzgerald, the man who first recruited him to Gonzaga and who understands as well as anyone that today's athletic role models are manufactured and are rarely products of example.

"I don't think he's had the impact on this community that a Ted Williams or a Larry Bird had in theirs and he's very much in that class. That's largely a very personal choice. He hasn't sought to capture attention. In fact, he's about the opposite."

And likewise, Spokane's regard for celebrity can be muted. When the Jazz played an exhibition here last fall -- Spokane's chance to say goodbye -- the greeting was respectful, warm and sincere, but hardly overwhelming.

Stockton always preferred understated and subtle, and that describes his impact here, too.

He was a great basketball player that came out of what has mostly been regarded as a football-first high school, Gonzaga Prep. As he blossomed at GU, his first few defining moments -- a dazzling buzzer shot that beat Saint Mary's as a sophomore, a 30-point tour de force that brought the Zags back from an 18-point halftime deficit against Santa Clara -- were played out in front of decent crowds, nothing like the obligatory sellouts of today.

In fact, in the steady basketball renaissance that Spokane has experienced these past 20-odd years, Stockton's appearance on the scene is only one of the links.

"I think the first catalyst was George Raveling," Fitzgerald offered. "When he coached at Washington State, he brought some spontaneity, some fun to the game that intrigued people. Then we started to get better and all of a sudden we had a local kid in John who made it in the pros. Then a lot of things start to happen -- Hoopfest, the high school programs like Ferris get better, and Gonzaga really jumps into the next level.

"But if you think about it, John wasn't as heralded in his time going from high school to college as a Sean Mallon or an Adam Morrison is today."

And that continued in the pros, for his was a purist's game, not a pizzazz game.

"I get into arguments all the time with the guys on my team," said Eastern Washington's Danny Pariseau. "I think he's the best point guard ever and they all want to say Magic Johnson. There just isn't a lot of excess stuff in his game -- it's stripped down, simple. They all want to know where the flash is, but for him, it's not about pleasing the crowd. When the play's over, his guy has the ball underneath the rim for a layup."

Stockton would have been a bigger hit if he'd been drafted by Seattle or Portland. Instead, the Jazz always seemed to be going head-to-head against those teams in the playoffs -- and thus a healthy segment of fans here wound up rooting against him, out of a different kind of loyalty. Same thing on a national scale; it was his choice to play 19 years in Utah, the publicity vacuum of the NBA, making the right pass instead of the one slathered in mustard.

"He's just not a guy the average kid emulates -- even here," Fitzgerald said. "I mean, you go to the park in those short shorts and you probably get your ass kicked. But that's part of what I mean. This was a guy who was a marketing dream in his approach and his conduct -- who chose not to be marketed."

It's the kind of thing we can respect, if we don't always understand. Remember, his dad never put up his picture at the tavern -- though on Jazz nights, it was never misunderstood what the place was about.

For those last couple of playoff games, a number of people who showed up the night Jack Stockton first switched on the satellite dish came back for their own kind of reunion. That included, among others, Stockton's sisters Stacy and Leanne, GU art professor Bob Gilmore, Forrest Day ("his wife used to be our scorekeeper -- I'd argue with her about assists," Jack joked) and Bob McGee, who has known Jack since first grade.

"We talked about the Houston shot and the Santa Clara game and even some of the things he did in baseball in high school," Jack recalled. "It's funny what people remember. Of course, that's the way it is in a tavern."

Or in the station wagon pointed south, with the radio and the signal fading out.

 
 
   

Utah Jazz guard John Stockton, right, looks to pass against pressure from Dallas Mavericks guard Steve Nash during an April game in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Steve C. Wilson)
 
 


 
 
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